April on the Bluff is marked by drizzly days, fluttering cherry blossoms and eager anticipation for summer. But for three members of the UP community—freshman Isabella Horning, sophomore Kira Champelli and Moreau Center Program Manager Tshombé Brown—April is marked by Saturday’s Easter Vigil Mass, the night upon which their journey to becoming Catholic will culminate in what is arguably the most important Catholic celebration of the year.
Horning, Champelli and Brown have been participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) since last fall, a program that UP puts on every year. RCIA involves weekly meetings that explore different teachings of the Catholic Church, leading those who want to become Catholic to a fuller understanding. RCIA concludes with the Easter Vigil, a nearly three hour long Mass on Holy Saturday, where Horning, Champelli and Brown will receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. These sacraments, which are defining rituals for Catholics that express different elements of their faith, will make them fully initiated members of the Church.
For Horning, the desire to become Catholic began at a young age. Although her dad grew up Catholic, her mom had no connection with the Church at all, and Horning said her parents weren’t really that religious. But after her parents divorced, her dad remarried a woman who was very devout and forced Horning to go to Sunday Mass. Although she didn’t like going at first, her resistance didn’t last long.
“I don’t know what happened, but one day I was sitting there, and I was like, ‘I may as well pay attention,” Horning said. “‘I’m here, I may as well get something out of it.’ And I started listening. That was when I started tuning in.”
Although Horning struggled with some of the Church’s doctrines initially, such as their views on abortion and their teachings regarding LGBTQ people, she loved the experience of going to Mass. She liked having a safe space to pray, reflect and get in touch with God every Sunday. Naturally, she wanted to be a part of this thing that brought her so much peace.
“I tried to become Catholic my senior year (of high school),” Horning said. “But I was seventeen and the program that I tried to join wouldn’t let me join the adult program because I wasn’t quite an adult. And so I was in the children’s program with all the three year olds that hadn’t yet been baptized. And I was like, I want to learn everything about Catholicism and they’re like ‘draw a picture of Jesus,’ and I was like ‘Oh, my God.’”
Horning didn’t worry too much, though. She knew that she’d eventually find a way to join the Church, which is why she joined RCIA almost immediately upon arriving to UP. For her, becoming Catholic means being able to finally participate fully in Mass, and this means being able to receive the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the literal body and blood of Jesus.
“I have my relationship with God and with Jesus and I pray and I do all of these things,” Horning said. “But the one thing that’s missing is the one thing that really connects us to Christ so I think it’s going to be really powerful. I’m really excited.”
Brown’s journey into Catholicism has been more complex than Horning’s. Brown is known around campus for his cheerfulness, his smile and ability to connect with students. As a staff member and not a student, he’s lived a longer life and has had a more diverse set of religious experiences. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, Brown has dabbled in Buddhism and was also part of a Sufi community—a mystical Islamic community—at one point in his life. His initial draw towards Catholicism was merely to help him better relate to students he works with.
“I’ve been polyamorous in religion,” Brown said. “And Catholicism was just another avenue or expression or what I call a fragrant odor to God that has this frame that I’m learning about because I’m naturally in a Catholic institution, and how am I going to support students better if I don’t know the context in which they’re going to school?”
Brown began attending RCIA last fall just to learn more; initially, the idea of becoming Catholic was crazy to him. He remembered a colleague asking him if he was going to become Catholic. Brown couldn’t even imagine that possibility at that point.
“(I remember saying) God would have to be speaking out of the burning bush for me to become Catholic,” Brown said.
He struggles with different aspects of the Church, and one of the big things is the most recent scandal of sex abuse. He’s especially upset with the way many people talk about the scandal.
“People are talking about this thing as if it’s new,” Brown said. “It’s every few years. It’s a blowout, and then that’s covered over, it’s done, people forget, collective amnesia.”
Brown, however, said that he’s learning to realize that wrestling with faith is what being Catholic is kind of about. Despite his struggling, he feels confident that he is meant to become a part of the Church.
“I think that I become the burning bush,” Brown said. “I can’t stay away from the altar. I need the nourishment of the liturgy. It doesn’t make any sense, but I can’t deny the pull and the experience of God that is happening, that seems against my will.”
Similar to Brown, Champelli explored other types of Christianity before settling on her decision to become Catholic. She wasn’t raised in any particular religion because her parents wanted her to have the freedom to choose what she believes for herself. When she was younger, she attended a French immersion program at BYU and became attracted to Mormonism.
“While I was there, I started figuring out that all these people were so much happier because whenever bad things would happen in their life, they had this way of getting together with their community and discussing why bad things happen and discussing the fact that there is hope even through bad things that I was super drawn to,” Champelli said. “Since I was little it was just like if something bad happened to you, tough luck, the world sucks and then you die. Just a very nihilistic view that there is no hope.”
Although she felt pulled to Mormonism in a way, she didn’t like some of their social practices such as the emphasis on women being stay at home moms and their emphasis on converting others. When she came to UP, an experience at Adoration—a Catholic ritual where people pray in front of the exposed Eucharist, believing that they are praying in the actual presence of Jesus—sparked her interest in becoming Catholic.
“It was there that I realized there’s something really amazing going on here,” Champelli said. “It was the fact that there wasn’t this emphasis on this kind of aggressive, forced, ‘you need to do this or else you’re going to burn in hell’ kind of a fire and brimstone aspect. It was like a calm, meditative celebration of a truth that they already knew was there that I felt drawn to learn more about because it was so mystical and magical. I think it was there that the journey really began.”
Champelli is especially attracted to the hope offered by Catholicism. She’s currently on the pre-med track and hopes to someday become a doctor. She said her Catholic faith will help her with the harsher realities of her future career.
“For myself, going into the medical field, I knew that I needed a type of hope that wasn’t being offered to me when I was agnostic,” Champelli said. “I just found it kind of devastating whenever something bad happened. And so the knowledge that, if people are good that they’re going to, if they die, end up in some place really good is insanely comforting if you’re dealing with death.”
Horning, Champelli and Brown will be baptized, confirmed, and receive first Eucharist Saturday, April 20, at 8:30 pm in the Chapel of Christ the Teacher.
Wes Cruse is a reporter for The Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.